Subverting Gender through Combat Sports: Sketching the Limits of Optimism

This paper addresses the broad question of how subversive constructions of gender might be articulated through and within contemporary combat sports settings. Conceived of here as activities primarily centred on preparing for and engaging in competitive, rule-bound fighting contests, ‘combat sports’ are sites which, in Western contexts, have long been conceived of as ‘quintessentially masculine’ pursuits, described as ‘heterosexual male preserves’ or ‘bastions of masculinity’ within otherwise ‘feminising’, gender-democratising societies. Within such a framework, women’s (and gay men’s) participation in combat sports have been seen to present specific difficulties, and yet also considered to hold possibilities for the subversion of heterosexist male hegemony – two themes which have recently begun receiving much academic attention. Attending primarily to the latter proposition, this presentation addresses the question of exactly how combat sport practices can be thought of as ‘subversive’ of gender, principally through discussing the potential for women’s and men’s participation in such activities to be interpreted in various, sometimes competing ways. The discussion will presuppose that gender exists through institutional, discursive, embodied and interactive dimensions, and will take shape around examples drawn from the presenters’ various research projects and personal experiences, as well as critical commentary on the representation of gender within and around widely mediated combat sports events. The presentation will argue that while the possibility for gender subversion certainly exists within combat sports, claims as to the progressive potential of these activities must be tempered by attending to the numerous ways in which subversive impulses can be stalled, countered, or misrecognised in these settings.

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